How Do Unions Fit in the Modern Working World?

Unionization in the United States has been on the decline for decades. But new, nontraditional union efforts question the role unions should play in today’s economy — and if business leaders should embrace or rebuke them.
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Labor unions in the United States have been on the decline for decades, but one group of technology workers are looking to revive it — albeit with nontraditional motivations.

Tech Solidarity was founded in November 2016. But rather than fighting for higher compensation and better working hours like most traditional unions, the group says it is organizing to deliver a different message: it won’t help companies collaborate “on dubious government polices from immigration to surveillance,” such as a Muslim database proposed by the Trump administration, according to a March 2017 Quartz article.

Shared interests that leads to traditional unionization appears to be on the decline, as evidenced by the number of wage and salaried workers belonging to a union dropping from about 20 percent in 1983 to 11 percent in 2014, according to Pew Research Center. This makes Tech Solidarity’s emergence significant, especially in an era of abundantly rich salaries and working conditions in the technology sector. Unique to the group is its motivation for organizing, which experts say nowadays doesn’t always need to be wage related. Its emergence has also brought to light a renewed conversation on the role of unions in the modern workforce.

“If the workforce feels that they have a shared interest, which all workforces really do, then I think it makes natural sense they would be looking for a formal way to weigh in with management,” said Celine McNicholas, labor counsel at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., in an interview with Talent Economy.

Part of what explains unions’ decline over the years is their inability to adapt to current dynamics around current workforce issues, as well as a compensation environment that pushes workers away from unions, according to F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit think tank in Midland, Michigan, and a senior fellow at limited government nonprofit think tank Illinois Policy Institute based in Chicago.

For instance, companies over the years have independently adapted their pay and work conditions to ward off unions and discourage worker involvement. He said workers today see a wage floor and ceiling that unions bargain for, which doesn’t take into account individual, merit-based pay packages that many modern workers receive through their companies and that typically leave them better off than the deal a union would likely negotiate. Additionally, employers and employees want more flexibility, both in regard to pay and in how and when they work, than what unions traditionally offer. Companies, in essence, want to discourage unionization. “The way to do that is to treat your employees well, to pay them well and to give them good benefits, regardless of whether there’s a union at the worksite or not,” Vernuccio said.

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Other experts say business leaders should do more to actively embrace unions. The process of forming a union hasn’t changed with its decline, but employer opposition to unions has, said EPI’s McNicholas. In “No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing,” an EPI paper from 2009, a team examined representation elections that were supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. Its findings state that “employers threatened to close the plant in 57 percent of elections, discharged workers in 34 percent, and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of elections. Workers were forced to attend anti-union one-on-one sessions with a supervisor at least weekly in two-thirds of elections. In 63 percent of elections employers used supervisor one-on-one meetings to interrogate workers about who they or other workers supported, and in 54 percent used such sessions to threaten workers.”

“I don’t really think that it’s fair to say that that decline in union density reflects a lack of interest in working people from coming together and bargaining collectively,” McNicholas said. “I think it reflects the intensity with which employers oppose organizing efforts.”

That opposition to unionization from business leaders comes from the desire to not pay higher wages or spend time in collective bargaining, she said. Although the aforementioned EPI study was from 2009, McNicholas sees that economic trends since then exacerbate inequality of power between employers and employees. “There’s absolutely a feeling among workers that there’s something off in this balance of power,” McNicholas said.

Despite the frustrations people have around unionization — from both employers and employees — there can be positive long-term implications to a unionized workforce.

For starters, it would benefit the U.S. economy to have more collective bargaining, McNicholas said. One area she studied, for instance, is around the gender wage gap of unionized and nonunionized men and women. She found that women in unions earn 94 cents to every unionized man’s dollar, compared to nonunionized women earning 78 cents to every nonunionized man’s dollar. Repairing inequalities like this would mean more money in consumer pockets.

“Arguably, we got here because we have so eroded workers’ ability to come together and collectively bargain,” McNicholas said. “That has produced this wage stagnation and inequality, at least in part.” A positive change in trends of unionization could benefit all industries and the overall economy.

“Corporate giants are really focused on their bottom line and making as much money as they can,” said Marilyn Sneiderman, director of Center for Innovation in Worker Organization and professor of professional practice at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Which I think is in some ways often shortsighted.” Sneiderman said she sees unionization as a way for workers to have a say in the quality of their work environment. “It actually shows a commitment to the work that they’re doing,” she said.

Business leaders who are receptive to employee concerns and needs might not feel a union is necessary; their employees have great benefits, hours, vacation, etc., so why do employees feel the need to unionize?

“The corporate leaders who really are listening should welcome a union,” Sneiderman said. “It actually is a much more organized way to hear everyone’s concerns.”

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.